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Creativity and the physical brain

For the past couple of months, we’ve gathered and shared your thoughts, musings, and insights on our current theme, creativity. Through our Creativity Spotlight series, we heard how people carve out intentional time in their schedules to be creative, how creativity helps them solve problems at work, and the benefits of independent versus interdependent creative environments. We heard how creativity helps with neuroplasticity, how it can be a source of joy, and how surrounding yourself with people that care for you nurtures and strengthens creative abilities. All of your individual experiences with creativity are windows for the rest of us, creating fresh perspectives on this theme and the brain.

As we begin to wrap-up this theme, it’s our turn to share with you. After hearing about your lived experiences, we want to share some of the science behind your brain and creativity. We’ve got three categories for you: the physical brain and creativity, brain chemicals and creativity, and how being creative impacts your brain state.

art: Philip Papapolyzos

The 3 brain networks

Unlike certain neural functions, creativity does not stem from a dedicated region of the brain. Instead, it is the product of interconnected regions of the brain functioning synchronously. When these interconnected regions of the brain function in coordination, they are called brain networks. There are approximately seven major networks that have been identified, but to understand your brain on creativity, we are going to look at three of them.

  • Default mode network: this network is active when your brain is awake and resting, like when you are daydreaming or your mind “wanders.” It consists of the medial prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate cortex, and angular gyrus. It is responsible for internal-oriented tasks such as envisioning the future and retrieving memories.

  • Executive control network: this network monitors what is going on around you, managing some emotional parts of the brain, and it is involved in attention and decision making. It consists of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex.

  • Salience network: this network helps to determine what your brain does and does not notice in your external environment. It is composed of a number of regions, including the anterior (bilateral) insula and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex.

The relationship between brain networks and creativity

In an article from Psychology Today, psychiatrist Grant Hilary Brenner describes the relationship between these three networks and creativity:

“...scientists hypothesize that the Big Three operate as a team: the default mode network generates ideas, the executive control network evaluates them, and the salience network helps to identify which ideas get passed along to the executive control network.”

A group of Australian researchers scanned the brains of 163 participants and asked them to complete a creative, divergent thinking task. The results of the scans showed dense connections in the regions associated with the “big three” networks. The 25 most connected areas of the brain during the tasks included 12 in the default mode network, four in the salience network, and three in the executive control network. In short: creativity is the result of multiple complex systems in the brain interacting and working together.

What creativity is NOT

Finally, let’s look at what creativity is not: certain brain functions are highly lateralized, meaning they happen on one side (hemisphere) of the brain or the other. Creativity, however, requires complex coordination across hemispheres. There is no such thing as being a “right brain” or “left brain” type of person when it comes to your ability to be creative. If you’ve pigeonholed yourself into either of those categories, break free! Your brain and your creativity are more complex and more capable than you may be giving them credit for.


Brenner, G. (2018, February 22). Your brain on creativity. Retrieved April 04, 2021, from

Grigonis, H. (2020, April 21). The science of creativity: What happens in your brain when you create. Retrieved April 04, 2021, from,ideas%20more%20time%20to%20develop.

Heinonen, J., Numminen, J., Hlushchuk, Y., Antell, H., Taatila, V., & Suomala, J. (2016, September 14). Default mode and Executive Networks Areas: Association with the serial order in divergent thinking. Retrieved April 04, 2021, from,anterior%20cingulate%20cortex%20(ACC).

Kaufman, S. (2019, January 04). The neuroscience of Creativity: A Q&A with Anna Abraham. Retrieved April 04, 2021, from


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